Thursday, May 6, 2010

Wednesday, May 5, 2010: Letter to My Aunt

Hi Titia

I’ve included some tips and summarized some information which I think is worth knowing before your trip to Uganda. Hope I haven’t ruined the excitement! I’ve given you some items to bring, but I thought I would just give you the basics first. I’m looking very forward to your visit!


Getting the Info

The Bradt Guide Book for Uganda, 5th Edition (2007), is definitely worth picking up and skimming through before you come. You should be able to find this at Borders, or any big bookstore. It offers travelers A LOT of information about coming to the country, what to bring, and places to visit. You can also try them online at, or get country info from the Lonely Planet agency at I told my mom about the Bradt book as well, and it would probably be worthwhile to get and share. Very useful. I’ll make a bulleted list of must-brings in another email, but check out the book first.

Some Packing Tips

Overall, I think most important when you arrive will be to just feel comfortable carrying your luggage and moving around. Try not to over pack and dress in comfortable clothing you won’t mind getting dusty. I would carry a backpack and a bag you can carry by hand or shoulder strap. It’s also nice to have a smaller day bag you can use later for short trips. It’ll always feel good to have one or both hands free. I wouldn’t even be afraid of carrying a rolling suitcase on the plane, they are very common here, and I feel easier to open and organize as we move around. Really, whatever, you’re comfortable with, and not afraid to get a little dirty during travel. I have a lot of the things we’ll need at home, and at worse, we can find almost anything we need here in country, though usually, the good stuff is at an inflated cost, and may be harder to find.


I’ve given you some tips here about money, but please, don’t take this as me expecting you to pay for everything. These are only things which I feel you should know about money in Uganda. First off, I would bring your ATM card and have cash ready to exchange. Visa access is available throughout the country and will be good for emergencies. Using a Visa card casually in Uganda, outside ATMs, nice hotels, big super markets, and tourist destinations, pretty much doesn’t exist. Just let your bank know you’re coming to Uganda. I haven’t had any issue with using my ATM card, though Summit Credit Union does charge a 1% surcharge on the money I take out at an ATM. Not much. I did have some trouble with a credit card I used for a conference and hotel, but we were able to straighten things out the same if I were in the US. That said, most people don’t use credit here at all, as stores are usually very small, and we’ll buy a lot of our food at site in a market. I only know of a few stores in the capitol you can use a card, and still, I use cash. Just make sure you have cash available in a crunch, but carrying a lot won’t be necessary, since we’ll be able to stop in towns with banks and ATMs. When you arrive at the Entebbe airport, I’ll be there with a taxi and will have already paid. When we get to Kampala, we can exchange money at a private forex bureau, which provides the best exchange rates. I carry a wallet just like I do in the US, though I just use cash instead of my Visa card. You’ll get the best exchange rate with newer $50 and $100 bills. I would never exchange anything less than a $20 bill, unless I really had to. The exchange rate is anywhere from 1800 to 2000 Ugandan Shillings (Ushs). If you want to know how much money you’re spending in Uganda, it’s very common to just divide it by 2000. So, that dinner for 25,000 Ushs at a restaurant in Kampala costs around $12.50. Lunch in Rakai costs about 1,500 to 2,000 Ushs (yes, that cheap) at a local “restaurant”. I’m not sure what the tourist places will be like, but definitely more expensive than that. I’ve also heard it’s not good to compare Ugandan costs to what you’d be spending in the U.S., because, things ARE typically cheaper here.


I realized the whole clothing thing wasn’t as difficult or different as I thought it would be…but I’m a guy, and it’s noticeably more difficult for women. Peace Corps staff told the female volunteers to wear long skirts every day, and that pants were not allowed. They did end up wearing pants, and I definitely wouldn’t tell you not to bring any, especially since we’ll be in the capitol, other tourist destinations, and people will know you’re visiting from abroad…exception made. I actually think too much emphasis was put on this, and volunteers have obviously loosened and “styled” up a bit. Go ahead and bring pants which are light and comfortable. As for shorts, I think the only place you could wear these would be on the safari, but even so, women really don’t show their legs here. It will just be important to bring clothing which is easy to wash, not too heavy, and you’re comfortable in at “work”. If I were coming for a month, I would probably bring a week’s worth (or maybe just a little more) and plan on washing clothing once a week. A rain jacket or light fleece would be adequate for “cooler” nights or rainy days. I do most of my washing by hand, which saves a lot of money, but you can pay someone to do it, especially at the hotels. Ugandan’s also like ironing everything. It’s easy to say that dress here is fairly conservative. Men polish their shoes as if they didn’t walk on dusty roads every day, or maybe that’s why they do. If, and when you do dress nice, people will say you look very “smart”. You’ll notice that people do try to dress nice, and some do, just most clash stripes, colors, or really anything, together. Material is obviously a bit cheaper here, but good, because it’s light and cool.


You won’t need big hiking boots. Definitely bring sandals. Maybe two pair. One pair which are comfortable for walking around in throughout town, and the other, you’ll just wear around the house and slip on and off. I would also bring a pair of walking shoes for the capitol and the safari. It’s very common for women to wear nice dress shoes or sandals everywhere. In our definition, these would still be somewhat casual. I wear a pair of Birkenstocks almost daily now…and a brown pair of loafers or fake black leather shoes for work…sometimes. I am probably also underdressed…but I don’t feel too bad about it. I have a pair or running shoes for sports and have a pair of slippers around the house and even sometimes for short trips into town. People here have very rough feet and are not afraid to show them. There are also some people who wear sandals which have been made from old rubber tires. These are awesome. Since we do get a lot of rain, people also wear rain boots, or “gum boots” when it’s muddy, and maybe out farming. Just make sure you bring something that you can wear in the rain. I’ve noticed though, it’s much easier to clean a pair of sandals and your feet, over a pair of heavy shoes and white socks. Try not to bring white socks, I brought close to 6 pairs (dumb), because they will get dusty and dirty. A load of dirty white socks is not fun to wash by hand, though, can be rewarding as they slowly turn white again. I’d recommend bringing 5-6 pair of socks, ones that are light, allow your feet to breathe, and are dark or tan in color.

Perspective, etc

So, some perspective, Uganda is still a developing country, with its traditional way of life and dress still very present in its rural areas (80% of 30 million or so people live in rural areas). We’ll see much more of this than the capitol way of life. You’ll notice though all people that have the capacity (or capitol) to dress nice, do. In the capitol and other bigger cities, and very likely in the tourist destinations we visit, we won’t dress that much different than what we’d wear in a “warmer” US city. I don’t say hot, because I don’t believe Uganda overall is very hot, but this is my Rakai perspective, not safari perspective, and the highest I’ve felt is probably in the 90s. BUT, Uganda is still a very dusty and muddy country, and it’s hard to stay clean for long. Definitely bring a handkerchief to carry in your pocket, they’re nice to have to clean up a bit, dry your hands, and maybe cover your mouth when driving on dusty roads. Also, every Ugandan carries one.

Norms about My Home

At site, I live in a connected two room flat within a shared U-shaped compound. I have one door that looks out into the grass compound, and I have neighbors which live to the side of me. Most of my neighbors are educated women who work for World Vision. Overall, it’s a nice compound, and our landlady Prima will definitely make an impression. There are a very few children who live here, and most of my neighbors are gone over the weekend. More kids are around now since on their school break, but will be back in school when you visit. There are no crying babies or big families that live in the compound, but we will still see our fair share. Prima also has a lot of visitors, mostly older men and women, as she heads a local organization called Rakai Women Against Aids and Poverty (RWAAP), and is also running for Town Mayor. In the compound, there are “maids” or “housegirls”, or young girls, who are in school, and do a lot, or all, of the housework around the compound. This includes cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, getting water, or anything their moms ask. This is normal in Uganda and very acceptable. Town is simply a 5 minute walk, and consists of 1 paved road. Rakai is actually where the paved road ends, and is where the District offices are held. If these offices weren’t here, there wouldn’t be much going on.

My Cooking

I cook on a 2 burner gas tank stove and buy all of my vegetables and fruit at the local market. I stock up on rice in Kampala, which lasts a few months, and pick up pasta, macaroni shells, or anything else I can boil. I usually make a mix of onion, garlic, green pepper, tomato, spices, salt, pepper, and vegetable oil with either rice or pasta. There are also very traditional dishes here using bananas you’ll definitely get a chance to try. As for snacks, I pick up biscuits (crackers), peanuts, and small, ripe, “sweet” bananas. Tea breaks are very normal in the late morning hours and afternoon, so at some point, we’ll be expected to sit down and have tea with people. Coffee is usually instant, but I’ll have much better coffee, and a filter. I have no refrigeration, though I do have power, most of the time, for lights, charging phones and a computer, a razor, radio, small things. I usually don’t store any cooked food or dairy, though sometimes choose to in the few Tupperware containers I have. With that said, some people and stores do have refrigeration in town and we’ll be able to find milk and yogurt. I’ll also have powdered milk, though I don’t like it as much as getting the fresh milk. There are a number of bakeries in other nearby towns, so I usually buy bread when it’s driven in, and still somewhat fresh. I always have flour, vinegar, sugar, peanut butter and jelly, and sometimes a jar of Nutella. The biggest thing about cooking is the cleaning I have to do afterwards. Instead of a sink, I use two plastic basins, one for soapy water and one for rinse water, which I set out on the stoop of my flat. After cleaning, I let the dishes dry overnight inside my house, and stock them in the morning. For breakfast, I have oatmeal, eggs, toasts, French toast, bananas, tea, coffee, or nothing.

Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene

Don’t be too afraid…I think it’s fairly easy to stay healthy and clean in Uganda. It just takes a bit more effort, and you’ll notice you’ll be using a lot less water in doing so. As for water, we have a shared and metered compound tap stand, which provides water from a nearby lake. I pay 200 Ushs per 20-L “jerry can”, which are what most people store their water in. I pay this to Prima who pays a monthly water bill to the local water authority. The lake water must be boiled and usually contains some visible and floating particles. I have been working on a filter and treatment system for this at my house instead of using fuel to boil every time. If you don’t boil, there’s a solution called WaterGuard, which treats 20-L of water per cap full. A lot of volunteers use this, but Ugandans will say the water tastes funny, or rather, like chlorine. This is a sure way to clean your water, but getting locals to believe it is a challenge. Water is available almost all the time, but it’s good to have storage in jerry cans, just in case the tap is “out”, which usually doesn’t last more than a day. Bottled water is very available and sold in 0.5-L or 1.5-L containers at any store in town. These are very okay to drink, though their costs will add up. Recycling plastic also doesn’t exist here, and most people just burn them to dispose of them, so I try to limit myself. Rainwater use is becoming more common, we just don’t have a tank within our compound. Sanitation at our compound consists of 4 pit latrines, which shares 1 single vent. I have my own “locked” pit latrine, so it’s not shared with anyone else in the compound. People are unfortunately not the cleanest, or even conscience what an uncovered, dirty, pit latrine attracts…flies! I hope you don’t mind reverting to a squat latrine pit while you’re here in Rakai, though, throughout Uganda, flush toilets are common. Toilet paper is also common, cheap, and okay to flush, as compared to Guatemala. Flushing won’t be an issue at my home in Rakai…sorry! Since we don’t have running water, “showering”, or bathing, takes place bucket bath style in a closed door stall outside. I also have my own private stall for showering, and usually just do this in the morning. It’s sometimes nice to wash the feet at night, since they can get dirty wearing sandals around the compound. We’ve made a hand washing station outside the bathrooms, and this has improved the way people wash up after using the bathroom. Soap is very available at stores, and I always keep dish washing soap, laundry detergent, bleach, shampoo, toothpaste, and bar soap around the house. My Peace Corps medical kit carries a number of emergency type supplies, but I really haven’t had to use any of it. It does cool down at night to about 60, so I’ve gotten a few small colds…I think because of the weather, dust, or pollen. Bring any medication you think is necessary, but don’t go overboard… I have a lot of the basics.

Housing Conditions

Since my house is fairly small, there’s a possibility we can get one of the extra empty rooms Prima has here in her compound. This room would also have electricity, some furniture, a mosquito net, and bedding. I think if we do this, I’ll stay in the empty room, and let you stay in my homier room(s). My living room (remember, my 2 room flat) is what opens up to the compound, and is basically my only sitting and guest room. I have a nice wooden framed couch and chair with cushions. This room is also where I do my cooking…so if I were to stay in the empty room, we’ll still spend most of our time in this “living room”. Don’t worry about bringing a mosquito net, we’ll have one for you, and most places we’ll stay will have one, or you won’t need one. You may want to bring mosquito repellent, or a roll-on stick you can use at night. I often keep my door open in the evening before bed, and sleep with my windows cracked open. I feel I do not have a problem with mosquito’s, but it’ll be better to be safe than sorry, so, remember to take the malaria medication. Bedding, sheets, a pillow, and a spare towel will all be here. Overall, I think you should “feel” comfortable in Rakai, though the town is rural and has a lot of farm animals (goats, cows, chicken) running around.


I’ll try to keep this part short, because in theory, it’s easily available throughout the country with taxi’s and buses, it’s just a bit chaotic and probably better to just experience. The things you should be ready for are fast drivers, packed vehicles, exhaust fumes, dusty roads, and crowded streets. Streets in the capitol will be crowded with other vehicles, including cars, trucks, mini buses, buses, motorcycles, bicyclists, and a crap load of pedestrians walking roadside. These all exist in rural areas as well, just fewer in number, with more animals, and still a lot of people walking around. Fitting 9 people into a small 4-door Toyota Corrolla is not abnormal around Rakai, and most of the time the taxi drivers won’t leave for their destination until the car is COMPLETELY full. They’ll usually also put a ton of stuff in the trunk, and sometimes utilize the rolling start if the car’s not in good shape. This is probably by far the unsafest thing I do in Uganda, but, really, there’s not much way around it. As a volunteer, we are not allowed to drive a vehicle or ride on a motorcycle. I try to tell my co-passengers they don’t have to deal with this, that they can complain, but the usual answer is, this is Uganda, and how do you drive in the US? Most of the time this happens because people don’t have a lot of money, and they feel that cramming people in a car is the cheapest way to get around…and really, it does maximize fuel use. I just don’t get taxi drivers driving all around town trying to pick up people, may as well stay still and leave with one less person? I could go on… But I don’t think we’ll have to deal with this much. We’ll have transport around Rakai with the Fathers at the Catholic Church and also out to Queen Elizabeth trip national park. I also think taking public transportation is one of the things to experience here in Uganda anyway.

The Call of the Muzungu

You’ll undoubtedly be called “muzungu” while you’re here. Probably every day, you’ll have a group of very young kids calling out “muzungu, muzungu, how are you muzungu?” It’s sometimes actually pretty cute, the kids do get very excited, and is harmless. What’s sweeter than kids jumping up and down, getting more excited than I will all week, just for a quick hello and wave? I’ve tried to teach some of the kids I don’t always see my name…but I’m not sure if it’s working. I don’t think you’ll hear any educated or older person call you muzungu, though some of the motorcycle (boda-boda) drivers in town may call this out to us. They are usually a harsher bunch in general though, and are the cause of a lot of harassment, especially towards our female volunteers. I don’t think this will be any issue for us, it hasn’t for me, I just thought I would say it. The meaning of muzungu basically translates to “white foreigner” to Ugandans, though someone from anywhere but Africa, including some of our African American volunteers, get it. Again, it’s not used in a derogatory way, and shouldn’t be taken to be offensive. It can just get annoying sometimes.


I hope I haven’t ruined any of the surprises you were looking forward to. I think most of the things I mentioned will be helpful in hearing, but better to just experience when you’re here, and go with it. I’m very excited with sharing all of it with you, and really appreciate coming all the way here to do it, Titia! Thanks! I’m looking very forward to seeing you. Please email or call me if you have any questions, concerns, or need anything. Hope all is well, and good luck getting ready. I often realize that I over prepare the things I bring with me, and realize, that I could have done with the things which are already very normal and comfortable to me at home. Hope this has all helped

Take care,


Phone: 011.256.702533609


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